How do you know whether you are working too hard or not hard enough in yoga? How much should you push yourself when practicing yoga? What is the difference between intensity and pain? Most people who practice yoga have experienced creating too much intensity, or pushing past their edge, as many teachers call it. But how do you learn how far is just right, and why does it matter?

Ask yourself how goal-oriented your practice is. Do you compare where you are in a pose with your neighbors in class, with the teacher, or with photographs of the pose you have seen? Does your attention typically reside in your body’s periphery, judging how you are doing in a given pose by where you hands, feet, and chin are? Do you feel like your body should be different from what it is, and are you in a hurry to get there?

If your answer to any of these questions is ‘yes’, it’s almost certain that you are working too hard in your yoga practice at least some of the time.

Working too hard—or generating too much intensity—doesn’t just decrease your enjoyment of the practice and increase your chance of injury, which can potentially set your physical practice back months if not years. Working too hard also effectively prevents you from practicing the more subtle, mental aspects of yoga: learning to accept reality as it is, to become fully present in each moment, and to maintain a sense of serenity no matter what life throws your way. In other words, working too hard means you squander opportunities to learn not to let the potentially stressful things in life actually stress you out, because when you work too hard, you let yourself be ruled by the stress response. Conversely, practicing with perfect intensity provides you with the opportunity to learn to manage the stress response, and, as a result, to learn to live a healthier, happier, and probably longer life.

When stressful things happen to us, we feel that our reaction of getting stressed out is inevitable and automatic, leading us to utter phrases such as “this pose (or my boss) is driving me crazy”. Our reaction IS more or less automatic, and is called the stress response, but it is NOT inevitable. Evolutionarily speaking such an automatic response made sense, because the things that used to stress us out 10,000 years ago were mostly things that were trying to kill us or eat us, and what the stress response is good at (and the ONLY thing it is good at) is to mobilize within split seconds all the body’s resources to fight or flee (which is why the stress response is also called the “fight or flight response”). The problem is that 99.9% of the things that stress us out today cannot be dealt with effectively by fighting or running away. In other words, getting stressed out over them doesn’t actually help you deal with them, and usually actually makes it much HARDER to deal with them.

The REAL problem, however, is that when your body is in fight or flight mode, the basic maintenance functions without which your body cannot stay healthy long, such as digestion and immune function, are shut down in order to maximize your ability to fight or run. If you invoke the stress response once every few days and then clear the stress hormones out of the blood stream by engaging in actual, vigorous physical activity, the stress response functions as designed and does no harm. But being stressed out much of the time, and not releasing the stress through vigorous exercise, is very, very bad for your health.

The good news is that you actually can learn to manage your stress response, not just by consciously invoking your relaxation response when you feel stressed out (for example by belly breathing), but also by learning how to keep the stress response from triggering in the first place when it is not useful. How can you possibly practice not getting stressed out, you may ask? The trick is to intentionally stress yourself out, but slowly and gently enough that you can practice disrupting the stress response before it is in full swing.

How do you do that, you may ask? The best technique I know is to practice yoga with awareness and with perfect intensity, and to practice acceptance/serenity/surrender at the point of perfect intensity. When you find the perfect level of intensity in each and every pose in your yoga practice, you are effectively creating a series of (physically) stressful situations in your life, each one of which gives you the chance to practice not getting stressed out.

In contrast, when you push past your edge, your mind slips into a place of negativity, of suffering. Something is “driving you crazy”, and you get stuck in a place of suffering. When you practice with too much intensity, you fully trigger your stress response, and you have missed another opportunity to practice disrupting it. If you practice with too little intensity, well within your comfort zone, then you simply are never getting close to triggering your stress response, in which case you also can’t practice disrupting it.

So what IS perfect intensity? I would argue that perfect intensity is the point at which the stress response is starting to mount, and that that is the place to be for the majority of each yoga asana session, from the end of your warm up to the beginning of the cool down phase of forward bends and twists, but with some short relaxation poses distributed throughout as a sanity check to ensure that you haven’t actually gone too far into stress mode.

If you approach the point of perfect intensity slowly and mindfully, you can feel your stress response mounting slowly, you can feel your jaw and neck muscles clenching, and your breath becoming forced. When you practice yoga with awareness, you are able to notice these physical signs of the mounting stress response, and you can then learn to disrupt the stress response by disrupting its physical manifestations, by relaxing your neck muscles, by slowing down and smoothing out your breath, by letting a smile spread across your face. In other words, you practice disrupting your stress response by practicing yoga with awareness and serenity at perfect intensity.

Try it now: Do a couple of sun salutations to warm up, and then come into Warrior I or II pose. Notice the level of intensity you are creating, and then notice how you can vary that intensity: by lengthening your stance, by bending the front knee more or less, by rotating your hips more towards the front of the mat (Warrior I) or more towards the long side of the mat (Warrior II) while keeping your front knee pointing over the second toe, and by moving your hips closer towards level front to back and side to side. Fine-tune all these alignment aspects to gradually increase the overall intensity of the pose. The point of all these alignment cues isn’t really to come into an idealized “perfect” pose, but rather to create perfect intensity with reasonably safe alignment.

Observe your body and breath with interest and curiosity. As the intensity increases, notice how you start clenching muscles that you don’t need for this particular pose, and notice how your breath loses its smoothness, its spaciousness. In other words, notice how you are beginning to invoke the stress response as the intensity moves past being perfect.

When you notice the physical changes that indicate the mounting of the stress response, smooth out your breath, relax your jaws, lengthen the back of the neck by relaxing the shoulder blades down the back and lengthening the back corner of the crown of the head in the opposite direction. Learn to simply observe the sensations without judging them. Maintain a sense of serenity. Surrender to the moment. Hold the pose with perfect intensity for 5 to 10 delicious and deliberate breaths, and repeat on the other side.